Since childhood, we have been trained to think about our weaknesses. Our teachers marked our mistakes with bright red ink so we could clearly see everything we did wrong. Our parents focused their attention on any grades lower than an A on our report cards.
In the business world, we have been inundated with competency models that clarify where we fall short. What we disguise as “developmental areas” are really ways to describe what we’re not so good at. And when we receive feedback from others, we go directly to the list of developmental areas; barely scanning what they might say is going right.
A New Focus
The Strengths revolution has changed all that. It has shifted our focus in a more positive direction.
It’s hard to say when this revolution started. In 1966, Peter Drucker was the first to suggest “the effective executive builds on strengths.” David Cooperrider launched the Appreciative Inquiry movement in 1987 with a call to “build organizations around what works rather than fix what doesn’t.”
Dr. Martin Seligman turned psychology upside down in 1999 when he said the field was “half baked.” We had done well studying mental illness, but had ignored mental wellness and the pursuit of excellence.
I believe the greatest impact came from the publication of the bestseller, Now, Discover Your Strengths. At the time, authors Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton both worked at the Gallup Organization. In their extensive research there, they identified 34 different strength themes and developed an online assessment called the StrengthsFinder that identifies your top 5 strengths. The ease of administration and affordability of subsequent books (which typically include an access code for your personal assessment) has allowed millions to discover where they excel.
I once purchased a magnifying mirror…the kind that illuminates and highlights every imperfection. Not a good idea! In contrast, taking a strengths assessment is like magnifying all that is right with you, revealing your best features. I like to use StrengthsFinder 2.0 in my leadership development programs and coaching practice. I have seen it raise awareness, grow confidence, and reassure leaders that they don’t have to be great at everything…just to be who they are.
The World Today
What began as a slow trickle 45 years ago has become a full flood. No discipline has been left unaffected. Whether you work in business, government, education, or the non-profit sector, you have sensed a shift. It has changed how we perceive ourselves and others around us.
Many of the world’s most successful companies have declared their commitment to becoming strengths-based organizations. New managers now routinely attend training programs that help them spot strengths in their direct reports.
Positive Psychology is now the fastest growing area of the field. Universities offer courses on the topic that quickly become the most popular on campus.
Teachers, counselors, coaches, and leaders everywhere see the power in the strengths-based perspective. Why? Because it works. Conventional wisdom taught us that we learn from our mistakes. The strengths revolution taught us that if we want to learn about success, we must study success.
The message: the best way to succeed in your career, find fulfillment, and appreciate others is to focus on strengths. We are at our most creative, our most innovative, and use our best judgment when operating in our area of strength.